Congress Holds the Key to the Virginia Governor's Race

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Former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe speaks during a Souls to the Polls rally on Oct. 17, 2021 in Norfolk, Va.
Former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe speaks during a Souls to the Polls rally on Oct. 17, 2021 in Norfolk, Va.

Former Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe speaks during a Souls to the Polls rally on Oct. 17, 2021 in Norfolk, Va. Credit - Zach Gibson—Getty Images

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The most important strategy sessions for Terry McAuliffe’s comeback bid in Virginia took place yesterday—and he wasn’t invited.

In twin meetings at the White House, President Joe Biden met separately with the progressive and moderate wings of his Democratic Party about a path forward for a pair of infrastructure bills that, in the ideal world, would not just bring America’s airports into this century and bridges back from collapse but also make lives easier for millions of American families with universal childcare, free community college and piles of cash to combat the effects of climate change. Republicans aren’t wrong when they brand Biden’s Build Back Better agenda a liberal wish list, and conservatives oppose most of it. Biden’s legacy may well be cemented if he can’t shake his Democratic colleagues to agree to move a version of the bills forward.

Wait, you’re saying. You said this was about McAuliffe and his bid to become the first Democrat in Virginia’s history to be elected to two terms, right?

Correct. While McAuliffe has no vote on the bills in Congress, his political fate rests on whether Democrats can deliver on their campaign promises before Virginians’ votes are counted on Nov. 2. McAuliffe is building on the same pitch for a broadly popular Democratic agenda that put Biden in the White House. Voters last year, in the middle of a pandemic, liked Biden’s plans for a bold government-centered agenda. A year on, they’re not quite as winsome for those promises, and may revert to the historical trend in Virginia of picking a Governor from the opposite party as the White House. It’s such a pattern that only once since Watergate has it been broken—and that asterisk was McAuliffe in 2013.

In that year, too, Washington angst played an outsized role in deciding who would move into the Executive Mansion in Richmond, the country’s oldest continuously used governor’s residence. Barack Obama had just won a second term, and history suggested that backlash to Democrats’ victories a year earlier would lead to a Republican rejoinder. The state’s then-limited early-vote window was already open when HealthCare.gov launched—and crashed. The main vehicle for Obamacare sign-ups succeeded in connecting a total of six users with coverage on its first day.

But something else was even more dysfunctional than Obamacare’s digital meltdown. Washington was having its own tantrum. Republicans, led by Ted Cruz, shut down the federal government on unrelated matters, also on Oct. 1. A D.C. shutdown is inconvenient for states but not debilitating, unless, of course, the state happens to be home to almost 150,000 civilian federal workers, or 8% of all feds. (Virginia actually has more federal civilian staffers than D.C.) On top of that, another 124,000 active-duty military members and their families are based in Virginia communities like Norfolk and Newport News.

The total camouflaged shadow that year in Virginia, per the Pentagon’s HR system? Almost 242,000 on payroll, or 9% of the U.S.-based military footprint. Messing with paychecks so Cruz could read Green Eggs and Ham on the Senate floor did not sit well with those populations who, in normal times, tend to lean toward donning the Red Team’s jerseys. By the time the shutdown ended 17 days later, some 47% of Virginians told Quinnipiac pollsters the shutdown hurt them “a great deal” and were none too happy with a Washington largely perceived incapable of delivering even the most basic services.

Finally, candidates matter. McAuliffe had a hard-earned reputation as Bill Clinton’s bestie, a party hack who never met a fundraising scheme he couldn’t make better. He was a reliable font of Democratic Party pablum on Sunday shows, fundraising marathons and cocktail parties. His gift of the gab and absence of shame were mocked mercilessly but also given deference because they could fund a viable campaign in the span of hours. But after he staggered to defeat in his first go at the Democratic nomination for Governor in 2009, he got serious and boned up about what politicians actually do beyond rake in checks. By the time the general election debates rolled around, he seemed as credible as anyone.

Of course, McAuliffe was standing on stage during those sessions beside the incumbent Attorney General of Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli. In the spring of 2013, Cuccinelli was actually leading in polling but Democrats quickly went to work to make Cuccinelli into a caricature of a Bible-thumping, anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT figure who relished in provocation. (It wasn’t much of a stretch; Cuccinelli’s anti-immigrant views later landed him a top job in the Trump Administration.) By that fall, after Cuccinelli embraced Cruz and the shutdown, voters embraced McAuliffe.

Well, here we go again. Democrats again don’t have to go too far to link McAuliffe’s opponent, GOP nominee Glenn Youngkin, with the extreme wing of his party. Donald Trump is throwing himself into the Virginia race, even when he’s not helpful. Virginia Republicans see his partisan persona as anathema to the residents of Northern Virginia who, in recent elections, have trended more Democratic and more reliable as voters. These are the voters for whom the Trump-sparked insurrection on Jan. 6 was a local news story. You couldn’t flip a channel last week without seeing coverage of a pro-Youngkin rally where Trump spoke and organizers pledged allegiance to a U.S. flag that flew over the rioters on Jan. 6. (Youngkin later denounced the inclusion of that particular embodiment of Old Glory.)

Still, national Democrats aren’t counting on Trump to take down Youngkin. They recognize with increasing urgency that their log jammed agenda in Washington may end up hurting McAuliffe. For his part, The Macker has tried to be gentle in his nudging of D.C. He sees the logical hole in his argument: it’s tough to promise competence when his party holds the White House, the House and the Senate and still can’t get a popular agenda across the finish line.

“Do your job,” McAuliffe told Democrats earlier this month. “Quit your little chitty chat, do your job and quit the posturing, quit going out and talking to the press all day.”

He’s not alone. While Biden has been telling friends that it doesn’t matter if it takes six minutes or six months to get the job done, it does matter for McAuliffe—and to national Democrats, who spent millions earlier this year to defend the Governor’s gig in California and are looking to keep Virginia as just one of its 23 blue seats.

That’s why McAuliffe ally Sen. Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat, has been telling colleagues to get their acts together. The party’s internal divisions are nothing compared to the threat posed by a successful Youngkin bid, which could give Republicans a powerful road map for winning more elections across the country next year. Warner has been pushing progressive Bernie Sanders to get together with moderate Joe Manchin and come up with something. Yesterday’s scheduled Democratic lunch went far longer than normal and grew “lively” and “spirited,” Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters at the Capitol, not trying to gloss over the divisions he’s trying to bridge.

“There was universal—universal—agreement in that room that we have to come to an agreement, and we got to get it done,” Schumer said before sending his colleagues to meet with Biden.

The meetings at the White House left participants more optimistic than they have been in weeks, even if they still lacked answers. Biden told lawmakers that the $3.5 trillion bill that would attract only Democratic votes will have to be shrunk. As they left the White House yesterday, lawmakers seemed resigned to something capped at $1.9 trillion. It’s still a massive pile of money; Obama’s 2009 stimulus plan clocked in at $787 billion and was seen even then as damningly large. But even with the scale back, it means things will be left behind.

But if you’re McAuliffe, you don’t really care. You want this mess over, or at least heading that way. It’s tough to run around Virginia promising stability and continuity in a state when Democrats just up I-95 in D.C. cannot seem to even navigate an intra-party luncheon without a squabble. Either Democrats step up and be adults, or they continue to be petulant teens. And McAuliffe is begging his fellow Democrats to grow up.

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